In Four Men and a Prayer, director John Ford doesn't have one. Saddled by Darryl Zanuck with a claptrap mystery adventure plot involving the dishonorable discharge and subsequent murder of a proud British career officer during the jewel-in-the-crown years of British colonialism and the efforts of his four sons to find the killer and exonerate their father, Ford assumes the role of Houdini. With a handsome physical production, Ford mounts an impressive sleight-of-hand, diverting prying eyes by throwing everything at the audience he can think of, anything to stay away from the actual story, which Ford doesn't want to get close enough to smell.
The nominal plot has stout-hearted Colonel Loring Leigh (C. Aubrey Smith -- who else?) kicked out of the Lancers for signing an order allowing a shipment guns to find their way into the hands of a band of Indian rebels, who end up massacring 90 men at one of those Indian passes so famous in '30s movie adventure yarns. Colonel Leigh is drummed out of the army but knows he's been set up and his signature forged. Returning to England he summons his four sons -- dim bulb Oxford student Rodney (William Henry), pompous barrister Wyatt (George Sanders), shallow ladies man/aviator Chris (David Niven), and stuffy British attache Geoffrey (Richard Greene) -- in order to show them the evidence proving he was framed by an international gun cartel. He doesn't get that far. While the boys are sipping bitters in the ante room, Colonel Leigh is shot dead in his study and the evidence removed. The press claims Leigh committed suicide from his disgrace, but the boys know better and set about to find his killer and clear his name.
And that they do, hopping from India to Egypt to South America to gather evidence and quiz suspects, and they do all this faster than it takes a person to speed dial his parole officer on a cell phone.
The film moves at a hopped-up, caffeinated pace, sequences bridged by telegrams and telephone switchboards condensing plot points and leapfrogging over narrative logic and reason. And even within the sequences Ford can't settle down, diverting attention quickly as soon as plot points are hit by any means necessary as if hopping off a live land mine.
Four Men and a Prayer makes your head whip to and fro. Watching the film is so dizzying that it's not until late at night, when you bolt up in bed from a sound slumber, that the realization sets in that the film, in the end, makes an arms dealer into a good guy, and treats both British imperialism and peasant massacres as shallow jokes. But, as Loretta Young remarks, "It took a firing squad to make me realize it."
In any case, it is still entertaining to watch a great director squirm.
And a little lady.